Print Edition - 2016-12-29  |  Yearender 2016

Nepali Congress: A tectonic shift in leadership

  • NC will have to settle its internal wranglings to minimise leader-based partisan politics and return to the ideological path its founders once laid
- SARIN GHIMIRE

Dec 29, 2016-

In March, we witnessed the largest conclave of a political party that has proven itself as a major broker in state affairs, with one person featuring prominently behind the curtains—Sher Bahadur Deuba. Following the demise of its erstwhile president Sushil Koirala in February, the 13th general convention of Nepali Congress indicated a tectonic shift in leadership when Deuba was elected president. 

Nepali Congress, ever since its inception in 1946, has been under the dominion of the Koirala family. NC’s underlying policies—nationalism, democracy and socialism—were the brainchild of Bisheshwar Prasad Koirala, a charismatic and visionary leader considered the father of the democratic movement in Nepal. BP’s two brothers—Matrika Prasad Koirala and Girija Prasad Koirala—too became prime ministers, the only instance around the globe of three brothers serving in the top post.

Deuba’s ascendency

For a man born in a remote village of Dadeldhura in the Far West to be coping with top-flight politics for the last 50 years, Deuba’s rise to power was no mere coincidence. The three-time prime minister’s staunch commitment to the country’s quest for democracy and his unfailing persistence is regarded as his upshot within the party.

 In fact, Deuba began his political career as one of Koiralas’ trusted lieutenants, which many say was the reason for his exponential rise. Following his stint as the home minister in 1991, after the restoration of democracy, Deuba rode his luck when the institutional battle within the party between then party president Krishna Prasad Bhattarai and Girija Prasad Koirala handed him the prime ministership at the age of 51 in 1995. This, many consider, was the turning point of his political journey.

A self-confessed lousy orator, one of Deuba’s strengths has been his hands-on leadership. Gradually establishing himself as a fearless, straightforward leader, party cadres took him as the next viable candidate to challenge the Koirala clan’s dominance within the party. In 2001, he dared to challenge the Koiralas; beating Sushil to NC’s parliamentary party leadership. Five-time prime minister Girija, the illustrious, unrivalled figure in the party, was visibly shaken.

 As the sitting prime minister in 2002, Deuba was ousted from his party and in no time dropped as an “incompetent” executive head by the monarchy; which observers reckon as his lowest point in an otherwise heady progress, and the testament of his survival instinct. The tipping point in his relationship within the Koiralas was the party’s split the same year. 

Battling for relevance

An indefatigable, organisational architect, Deuba’s victory this year came in his third attempt; falling short twice against the Koiralas—GP and Sushil—in two previous attempts. For a bloc of the oldest democratic force, Deuba’s natural ascendency exhibited a non-coherent relation between the remaining Koiralas—Sashank, Shekhar and Sujata. NC’s leadership has delved into the hands of non-Koiralas for the first time in the last two decades, breaking the rather common feature of elected political dynasties in developing countries; for which South Asia is considered a fertile ground. Deuba’s fundamentals—his idea of inclusivity that included declaring free bonded farm labourers (Kamaiyas) and forming the National Women’s Commission, Indigenous Nationalities Commission and Dalit Commission—are seen as examples of his deal-making panache, the same quality the Koiralas are pointed at for lacking.

 Riding purely on the back of BP’s legacy, his son Sashank’s victory at the conclave testifies the legacy left by the Koirala leaders on the party. But if NC’s political dynasty is to stay relevant, observers have called for this generation of Koiralas to assert their commitment towards progressive inclusivity. Deploring Koiralas’ “regressive” move to question federalism and secularism altogether, observers have urged them to adhere to the principle of national reconciliation, an underlining blueprint of BP’s politics.

 The “unnatural and untested” rise of this generation in politics for the Koiralas, analysts say, justifies them losing their otherwise stronghold within the party. Reminiscing the Gandhi-Nehru family’s stature in Indian politics, political analyst Punaranjan Acharya feels the present lot of Koiralas will have to do more than merely cashing in on their family’s previous contributions. “They were professionally oriented apolitical people who were drawn into politics very late in life. They will need much more time to make a perception of the country and the people as envisioned by their forefathers,” Acharya noted. While Sujata was exposed into the limelight in the late 2000s, right before the demise of her father Girija, both Sashank and Shekhar spent much of their careers as professional doctors.

 

Litmus test for the leadership

Deuba’s rise to power, however, comes with its own critics. From his infamous move to provide tax-free vehicles to parliamentarians to forming jumbo cabinets to cling on to power, analysts are of the opinion that the former prime minister lacks decisive touch. Of late, having to deal with immense pressure from both national and international stakeholders as he oversees the oldest and most decorated political force in the country, is taking a toll on this otherwise resolute character. Succumbing to the politics of factionalism, Deuba is yet to give the central body of the party its full shape; including the office bearers. Party departments lie vacant. Factionalism, by the day, continues to become further instiutionalised.

 On a national level, eyebrows have been raised over his move to form a coalition with the former rebels. The coalition between NC and CPN Maoist (Centre), two parties that vary fundamentally and at one point were baying for each other’s blood, observers feel, was guided by convenience rather than conviction. Acharya understands it as a failure of the leadership to rise above partisan interests; with eyes glued to state power. “Deuba is known for being the most compromising of leaders. When a person is ready to accommodate himself to anything in return of the prime ministership, we are bound to see such tendencies of indecisiveness,” he said.

 The government’s attempt to push for a constitution amendment for its broader acceptance was met by large protests across the country. Contrasting beliefs have surfaced from within the party against the government’s proposal to carve out another Madhes-dominant state in Province 5. As natural as it is for a democratic party to have varied opinions, an ideological disunity has spilled to the fore in almost all national issues the party has had to deal with—constitution amendment proposal or the impeachment motion against suspended chief of the Commission for Investigation of Abuse of Authority, Lokman Singh Karki. Such indecisive, double-edged standards have in turn had accusaations at Deuba for being seduced by the prime ministerial chair once again. “A sort of desperation has crept in him to become the next prime minister. As far as he sees it, ten years of not being in state power is a very of a long time,” said Acharya.

As we head to 2017, NC will have to settle its internal wranglings to minimise leader-based partisan politics and return to the ideological path its founders once laid. Apart from this, BP’s idea of reconciliation is crucial as the country looks to address grievances through a statute amendment and head to polls. A strong-willed, resolute leadership will become ever more relevant in the coming year. 

Published: 29-12-2016 10:10

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